By Florence Graves and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Special to The Washington Post, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006
Jeannine Prewitt knew there was a problem when the holes wouldn't line up.
On a Boeing Co. assembly line in Kansas in 2000, Prewitt saw workers drilling extra holes in the long aluminum ribs that make up the skeleton of a jetliner's fuselage. That was the only way the workers could attach the pieces, because some of their pre-drilled holes didn't match those on the airframe.
Prewitt was a parts buyer, the third generation of her family to work at the sprawling Boeing factory on the outskirts of Wichita. She believed that pieces going into one of the world's most advanced and popular airliners, the Boeing 737, should fit like a glove.
The assembly workers Prewitt observed were not the only ones who noted problems with parts from a key Boeing supplier, AHF Ducommun of Los Angeles. Other workers told her that many pieces had to be shoved or hammered into place. And documents reviewed by The Washington Post show that quality managers reported numerous problems at Ducommun in memos recorded in Boeing's system for monitoring its suppliers.
Whether questionable parts ended up in hundreds of Boeing 737s is the subject of a bitter dispute between the aerospace company and Prewitt and two other whistle-blowers. The two sides also have enormously different views on what that could mean for the safety of the jets.
The whistle-blower lawsuit is in U.S. District Court in Wichita. No matter how it is resolved, it has exposed gaps in the way government regulators investigated the alleged problems in aircraft manufacturing, according to documents and interviews.
Boeing said that the lawsuit is without merit and that there is no safety issue. Even if faulty parts landed on the assembly line, the company said, none could have slipped through Boeing's controls and gotten into the jetliners. The whistle-blowers "are not intimately familiar with Boeing's quality management system," said Cindy Wall, a company spokeswoman. "Our planes are safe."
The three whistle-blowers, however, contend that Boeing officials knew from their own audits about thousands of parts that did not meet specifications, allowed them to be installed and retaliated against people who raised questions. They say the parts, manufactured from 1994 to 2002, fit the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of "unapproved" because they lack documentation proving that they are airworthy. Moreover, they say, forcing a part into place could shorten its lifespan.
Under the U.S. False Claims Act, plaintiffs who prove the government was defrauded -- more than two dozen jets went to the U.S. military -- could receive monetary damages along with the government.
After the whistle-blowers notified federal authorities in 2002, the FAA and the Pentagon looked into their charges. Each said its investigation cleared the airplane parts and found no reports of problems from military or civilian operators of Boeing jets. The Department of Transportation's inspector general also dismissed the charges.
The Post's review, however, found that the FAA did not assess many of the whistle-blowers' key allegations. FAA inspectors examined only a small number of parts in the plants and did not visit any airplanes to inspect the roughly 200 types of parts questioned by the whistle-blowers.
The Pentagon and Transportation Department, in turn, relied on the FAA's work, documents show.
One reason the FAA chose not to pursue the whistle-blowers' claims, officials said, was that its engineers believed the parts in question would not present a safety risk even if they failed in flight. There has never been a crash caused by such a failure, the agency said.
But on a number of occasions, the agency has expressed concern about similar parts, albeit on the previous generation of 737s, which Boeing began phasing out in 1996. Last year, prompted by reports from some carriers of cracks, the FAA formally alerted U.S. air carriers that fly the older version of the 737 to inspect for possible fatigue cracks around such parts. Cracks in these areas, the FAA said, "could result in reduced structural integrity of the frames, possible loss of a cargo door, possible rapid decompression of the fuselage."'We're All Appalled'
For nearly 40 years, the airframe for the Boeing 737 has been assembled in Wichita, loaded on trains, and hauled to the Pacific Northwest to get its wings, tail and engines. Boeing sold the plant in 2005 to a Canadian firm, which still does that work in Wichita under contract.
Prewitt's job at Wichita was to purchase parts for 737s and other jets from Ducommun and other suppliers. She said workers informed her that some pieces were coming in with inaccurate measurements beyond the margin of error. In the summer of 2000, she visited one assembly line where the aluminum ribs, known as chords, were being attached to the 737 fuselage.
As Prewitt watched, she said, one worker pulled a chord from the stack and saw its holes were in the wrong place. "I said, 'So what do you do?' She grabbed a drill and drills a hole and connects it together," said Prewitt, now 45. "We're all appalled. I sat there watching her drill, drill, drill."
She said the chord problem reinforced worries that others had raised for a year about other Ducommun parts. She had examined reports of problems with "bear straps," large pieces of reinforcing sheet metal bonded to the skin around an airliner's doorways. Prewitt said the pieces, which have four jutting corners something like a bearskin rug, were coming in short in one corner. That forced workers to drill holes for rivets closer to the edge of the piece than specified.
The whistle-blowers said they learned that some managers knew of the problem but encouraged workers to make the parts fit. For example, when Prewitt recommended tossing out 24 bear straps she considered unacceptable, a Boeing procurement manager objected. "Scrapping any bearstraps is stupid, since we've used over 300 with the same condition," the manager wrote a whistle-blower in a May 13, 1999, e-mail reviewed by The Post.
Boeing's corporate audit office convened a team to look into the parts problems in 2000. The 14 members included Prewitt and two others who later would join the whistle-blower lawsuit -- Taylor Smith, 44, contract administrator for the new generation of 737s and other jets; and James Ailes, 53, a technical troubleshooter. Others were experts on quality assurance, tooling and manufacturing processes.
The team visited Ducommun's Gardena, Calif., plant. In its report to Boeing, the team said it found that many of the more than 500 heavy-duty manufacturing tools used by Ducommun were incorrectly calibrated, misused or not built to Boeing's specifications. Contrary to Ducommun's factory records, the report said, the supplier still was making parts with hand tools such as routers, as it had done for the older 737 models, instead of the sophisticated computer-programmed tools Boeing engineers had specified.
Ducommun, also named in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the allegations beyond stating that the FAA and other agencies had already dismissed them.
The Boeing audit team issued its report in August 2000. Among other things, it noted that Boeing was seeking financial compensation for irregularities at Ducommun's plant and was reconsidering its relationship with the supplier.
Ducommun's statement said it never made a payment to Boeing as a financial settlement, but according to documents reviewed by The Post, the company agreed in January 2001 to a $1.6 million settlement with Boeing for overbilling and manufacturing problems. Boeing declined to comment.
Prewitt received a cash-and-stock bonus worth nearly $3,000 after what Boeing called her "outstanding contribution" to the audit. Soon, however, members of the team grew discouraged with what they saw as Boeing's reluctance to follow up on their findings. They said Boeing officials cleaned the report of details about possible airliner safety problems and violations of FAA procedures. When they raised the possibility of reporting their concerns to the FAA, they said, they were told to keep quiet or face possible legal action from Boeing.
Boeing said that it did not sanitize the report and that its policies prohibit threats or retaliation against employees who raise safety questions. Company spokeswoman Wall said the fact that the audit team was assembled shows that Boeing's oversight of suppliers is effective. She said that the team's mission was to look at "cost issues" regarding Ducommun's accounting and tools and that she does not know how the whistle-blowers on the team drew the conclusion that the parts were flawed. She said assessing quality was outside their area of expertise.
Eventually, the whistle-blowers came to believe that Boeing did not want to hear about anything that would be expensive to fix or would slow production. In the summer of 2000, Boeing was facing stiff competition from Airbus SAS. Boeing had recovered from recent production problems and was boosting its 737 output to 28 from 24 a month.
The auditors noted in their report that other Boeing plants were getting bad marks from the FAA. FAA inspectors looking into production breakdowns at the company's Pacific Northwest plants released in October 2000 the results of a special, months-long audit that found, among other things, inadequate planning, poor oversight of suppliers and nonconforming parts.
In early 2002, Prewitt, Smith and Ailes sent thousands of documents supporting their case to the Justice Department. They alleged that questionable parts had been installed not only on hundreds of 737s but also on some 747s, 757s, 767s and 777s and their military equivalents without the knowledge of the Air Force and Navy, the commercial airlines, or the FAA. Shortly after that, in March 2002, the three workers -- and one other whistle-blower who later dropped out -- filed their lawsuit.
In 2003, the whistle-blowers withdrew their suit after the Justice Department declined to join. They refiled it in March 2005. By then, Ailes was still employed at what is now Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, but Prewitt and Smith had been laid off. All three allege they received demotions and lower job evaluations because of their actions.FAA Probe
The lawsuit cites only those jets sold to the military, because the False Claims Act applies to only federal contracts. However, the whistle-blowers said most of the parts in question also had been installed on commercial airliners. So at the request of the Justice Department, the FAA launched a probe in the spring of 2002. It was handled by the division that investigates parts suspected to be "unapproved" -- ones that lack the paper trail showing they meet specifications.
FAA officials said that rather than restrict themselves to the more than 200 types of parts questioned by the whistle-blowers, their engineers reviewed a list of all Ducommun parts made for Boeing. They said they found most of the parts were unique to military planes. None of the commercial parts on their own, the engineers decided, were "principal structural elements," or parts whose individual failure could lead to a catastrophe. FAA officials, however, now say that some parts are in areas that are considered principal structural elements.
In the end, the engineers narrowed their list to 11 of the "most critical" Ducommun commercial parts and the FAA focused its investigation on how they were being made at the time of its probe. The agency said it has no official documents explaining the decision to eliminate hundreds of parts from investigation. That did not follow procedures adopted when the agency created an office devoted to investigation of suspect parts in 1995. Those rules require that FAA inspectors review the manufacturing history, quantity and importance of each part that is reported as suspect and then document their findings.
In the Wichita case, the report produced by the parts investigation office details only 11 types of parts, only one of which exactly matches a part number on the whistle-blowers' list. The FAA said a few part numbers represent families of parts. It could not say how many individual parts were considered. "It's a possible situation where the form was not filled out by the book," said Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman.
Beverly Sharkey, who heads the parts investigation office, said the agency decided not to physically inspect the parts already on aircraft because that would have required the "destructive testing or peeling apart" of hundreds of cabins. That was unnecessary, she said, because airlines had no reports of parts failures and the FAA had no reason to believe that there was a safety problem. Inspectors visited the Ducommun and Boeing factories and said they found no problems.
The military did not examine the parts questioned by the whistle-blowers, either, apparently because officials believed the FAA was doing it, according to a summary by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and first reported by Mother Jones magazine. Officials at the service declined to comment.
In the summer of 2004, the FAA closed its two-year probe, saying Ducommun's current manufacturing processes were sound. "The most important thing is corrective action," said Peggy Gilligan, deputy associate administrator for aviation safety at the FAA.Safety Question
Last year, the FAA reopened the case. The agency had received new reports about the parts from two FAA-certified experts hired by the whistle-blowers' lawyers.
The lawyers had provided four experts with the court documents and Boeing quality control reports from 1999 and 2000. All four experts, who are certified by the FAA to make decisions about aircraft engineering or airworthiness on behalf of the agency, and one additional expert hired by The Post to review the same documents said they believed that practices at Ducommun and Boeing were seriously flawed.
One of the whistle-blowers' experts wrote in his report that the documents "demonstrate systemic manufacturing control and quality problems" and that "from an engineering standpoint the safety of each Ducommun part has to be doubted." The expert said he could not judge how the parts might affect the jets' airworthiness.
His comments were consistent with those of all the whistle-blowers' experts, whose reports were supplied to The Post on condition that the authors not be named before a trial.
The evidence that Boeing and Ducommun ignored quality controls is "beyond the scope of anything I've ever heard of -- where an entire inspection system would be bypassed," said Sammy K. Hanson, the consultant hired by The Post. Hanson, who has worked in aircraft certification for 12 years, said that because the FAA acknowledges that it did not look at parts installed on planes, "every one of these parts [in the lawsuit] is 'unapproved.' "
Other aviation experts said that even if FAA procedures were violated, metal parts used for reinforcement are not as critical as, say, the main landing gear.
"Sheet metal parts are necessarily pretty flexible so if they don't fit perfect as delivered, it's not a big deal to shove them into place, bend them a little bit, push on them and rivet them together," said Charles Eastlake, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and a former aircraft structural designer for the Air Force. "Quality control people turn purple when they see that, but it's the way it's always been."
Another argument holds that because planes are stripped down for major maintenance every five to seven years, any early cracks or corrosion would probably be spotted before the part could create a problem. In fact, FAA officials said their inspectors combed through records from airlines that performed such maintenance and found no reports of problems with bear straps, chords or frames. Spokesmen for Southwest, American and Continental airlines told The Post they had found no problems with the parts.
But some analysts suggest that when factory workers force together parts that are not built according to their design, it could eventually cause premature cracking.
When you "bend and twist" with undue force, you can introduce more stress on the parts and the structure they are attached to, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and former airline mechanic. Goglia said that can be especially true of parts used to reinforce the cabin around doors, which may be more vulnerable to fatigue.
But, Goglia added, the safety impact of any suspect part is difficult to determine without an engineer's analysis of how it was made and where it is used.
The FAA has yet to complete its second investigation. The agency said the same lead inspector has been assigned to the matter. "We're confident we came to the right conclusions in the first case," said Brown, the FAA spokeswoman.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report. Research assistance also was provided by the Brandeis University Institute for Investigative Journalism, which Graves directs.